Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Theological Exegesis -- Part !

I have just returned from a conference at Duke Divinity School that was co-sponsored by my own Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology (our website is here). I am renewed, exhausted, and frustrated -- as is always the case with our conferences. This conference was distinct in having nearly uniformly excellent presentations. I have now learned in person from scholars who have taught me previously only in print -- e.g., Ellen Davis and Richard Hays. I have re-met guides whom I admire -- e.g. Rusty Reno and "my own" Robert Jenson (who demonstrated again that he can merge preaching and teaching into a work of art unrivaled by any). I met a new-to-me and absolutely exciting young scholar, J. Kameron Carter, for whom we all ought to keep out an eye. And that doesn't list all the presenters!

There was also a personal aspect to the Conference, as well: I also re-united with good friends -- notably, Jim (about whom I have written here), Steve, Erma, and fellow members of the Board of the Center (alas, my friend Gabe Fackre has seen fit to resign from the Board, and I was not able to see him). I made the acquaintance of new friends (I hope) who are eloquent, committed, earnest witnesses to the Gospel. I finally met "virtual friends" -- fellow disciples who speak regularly on an Internet listserv: What a treat and a challenge (and in some cases, what a surprise) to put faces and bodies to vocabularies and attitudes. And I ate new kinds of foot (why do grits taste better south of the Mason-Dixon line?) and drank only a little too much. (I'm told the liver transplant list is difficult to get on, so I try to moderate -- a difficult task for one with an addictive personality.)

Over the next couple of weeks, I'll try to articulate some inadequate summaries of what I learned, why it excited me, where I feel fed and challenged, and where I feel led and urged to push. In response to this, I eagerly invite questions and contradictions. And to that end, I've e-mailed some of those new friends whom I met at the Conference and invited them to either submit their own impressions or to expand on some of the stuff I post here. If they don't have their own blogs, I hope they will supplement my meager gruel here.

Center conferences are always exciting events. Presenters are selected for tscholarshipnt scho0larship, the dedication of their work to the well-being of the Church, and their ability to get their ideas across in ways that even we non-scholars can grasp. We usually avoid the brilliant-on-paper-but-snooze-inducing-in-person scholars. Follow-up questions and discussion enhance those presentations. I, of course, enjoy meeting scholars whom I've read but never had a body or person to relate to. And I especially enjoy the opportunity for "fellowship" with other thinking Christians committed to constant discernment of how to walk and talk the life of faith.

Shameless plug: Y'all -- all y'all -- ought to come to our conference next year. "Freedom and Authority in the Christian Life" will be held at St. Olaf College, Northfield, MN, 10-12 June 2007. You will find nourishing meat to feed on. You heard it here first.

Shameless plug 2: If you are interested in the particular issues that I reference in this conference, you will have available to you the printed papers of the conference published as a book in about 18 months. The Center has an arrangement with William Eerdmans Publishing to publish all of our conferences' papers, and they make them available in a timely (and relatively inexpensive) way.

So on to business: This year's conference "Preaching, Teaching, and Living the Bible," focused on what we might (and did) call "theological exegesis" of the Bible. (I decided that I prefer the phrase "churchly exegesis of the Bible for reasons that I hope to make clear over time on this blog.) "Exegesis," in case you ask, is the work of teasing meaning out of a text -- for our purposes, the text of the Bible. It involves, inter alia, study of the sources and styles of the Biblical text, consideration of the linguistic content and possibilities, reflection on sociological and cultural circumstances of the text's production and use and of how those factors might affect the intention and interpretation of the text (alas, not one presenter used one of my favorite phrases from seminary: "Sitz im Leben" -- the text's "place" in the life of the community that "used" it -- or perhaps even composed it), and accounting for the relation of a particular passage to the whole Bible. So far, that is pretty standard stuff for Bible reading by anyone with any contact with historical-critical study of the Bible.

What distinguishes "theological (churchly) exegesis" from what, say, Marcus Borg practices is its foundation upon this principle: "Readings" (or interpretations) of Scripture must or should not be discordant with what the Church teaches and lives. The Church's dogma, liturgy, theological traditions, and the like have a pride of place among the other "tools" or considerations in deciding what a given Biblical text means.

The implications of this approach are, I suspect, legion. But a couple of them excite me.

First, when a reading of the Bible contradicts what the Church teaches, then there is still a lot of work to do: It is not simply a matter of saying, "Bible trumps doctrine." The reader must examine further -- double- and triple-check the methods that yielded the interpretation, re-read the theological tradition to determine whether we accurately perceive a conflict between our reading and the Church's teaching. It is a matter of constantly maintaining conversation between the life of the Church and Scripture study. The point is that our reading of the Bible can never be meaningfully undertaken outside the context of the Church and here traditional teachings and practices.

Now, this doesn't mean, conversely, that Scripture must bend to the "magisterium" of the Church (which, of course, would immediately drive WordAlone into apoplexy). The "old time religion" is not beyond reproach and reformation. Indeed, if a good-faith reading of scripture calls into doubt a doctrine or practice of the Church, then the "more work" I prescribed above may require a change or re-interpretation of the tradition. But this approach does privilege "the Great Tradition" -- i.e., that living and "unified" legacy of the Church's witness in doctrinal articulation, in acknowledging "holy" or "saintly" lives and writing, in liturgy -- over and against any other interpretive lens.

At work here is a delicious (and at times, confusing) dialectic.

On the one hand, the Bible belongs to the Church: "Mater Ecclesia" made the Bible -- determined what is in it, weeding out writings that were deemed unreliable (such as the "Judas Gospel") and including writings that on their face have no necessarily religious content or point (e.g., Sond of Songs or Proverbs). In reading the Bible, Christians are obliged to read it as Christian Scripture. The Bible simply makes no sense as a body of literature outside its relationship with the on-going life of the Church. It cannot be properly interpreted as a "cultural artifact" (which, I think is precisely what the Enlightenment has tried to make of it) -- i.e., another work of fiction akin to a Shakespeare play or The Makioki Sisters -- any more than a Volkswagen repair manual makes sense in a hospital operating room.

On the other hand, the Church has in a sense subordinated her life to Scripture. Having set forth the "corpus" of the Bible, Mother Church humbly and realistically set the Bible as "canon" -- i.e., as "measuring stick" or guide and judge" or "authoritative boundary" for her own life, faith, and thought. Just so, the Reformation declared that the guide of faith is "sola Scriptura" -- i.e., "Scripture (or Word) alone." Thus, by this development, the canon of Scripture becomes the norm of norms in the Church's life. By "sola scriptura,"the Church bends her deliberations to the witness of Scripture.

I think it is wrong to assert that the "sola scriptura" means that only the Bible is authoritative for the Church's life and teaching: That "scripture" focusedme sort of guide or canon in its interpretation, if only to keep the interpretation focussed on what it is supposed to focus on. And thus the dialectical relationship between Church and scripture is born. The Reformers also declared "sola fide" -- by faith alone -- to be a canon of Church life and proclamation. And with that "fide" the Reformers loaded dogmatic content into the blend. For "faith" ("fide") has content and that content is not necessarily derivable from independent study. The principle of "sola fide" -- together with sola gratia and sola scriptura -- becomes part of the Tradition, the interpretive lens, which provides a check on our reading of the Bible.

Here is an example of how I see that this might work: The doctrine of the Trinity can easily be missed by even a relatively careful and faithful reading of the Bible outside the context of the Church. (Is this, perhaps, why the Jesus Seminar seems to take the Trinity into account not a whit?) But for most of the Church's history, "faith" has had as one of its components (even to the point of making it non-negotiable by declaring it dogma) some understanding of God's being as three "persons" of one "substance." Thus, a non-trinitarian reading of any Bible passage must be deemed defective at the outset because it does not accurately reflect the God who is active in or subject of all the passages of the Bible. So when my seminary classmates read Genesis and saw and heard "Let us make man [sic] in our image," they were (contrary to our Old Testament prof) not wrong to see there a reflection of conversation within the holy Trinity. (That the text, consistent with readings drawn by historical-critical methods, might also reflect influence from other ancient religious cultures that perceived a "heavenly court" with God and his counselors in no way disqualifies or trumps the churchly reading. As a reader, I have long believed, with no formal academic training in literary criticism beyond the baccalaureate level, that the context, culture, or community within which a text is read matters in a major way to the meaning that the text gives up. I think that applies to Bible, too. Taking those data into account may enhance the meanings one draws from reading Genesis, but they do not determine what one must preach -- as has often been insisted and practiced by historical-critical readers.)

The Bible is the Church's book. It was put together only for the Church's use in her worship, mediation, and community reflection. Thus, there is a legitimate criticism that the Reformation's urging of individual access to the Bible removed the necessary connection between Bible and Church. Of course even if that is a legitimate concern, no one suggests that individual believers restrict their contact with the Bible to what they hear in liturgy. But it does raise the important warning that pastors and church structures owe their people serious pastoral guidance in their readings of Scripture.

On a different tack, I have significant concerns when "academy" -- usually, but not exclusively, meaning secular university professors -- take up reading and interpreting the Bible. Without a firm and committed orientation to serving and applying interpretations to the Church, I wonder whether any scholar has any business touching the Bible. It is, so to say, no surprise that in recent decades the havoc wreaked upon the Church by the so-called "historical critical" method has been the result of readings outside the fellowship of the Church. (Granted: Bultmann maintained a connection -- even a preaching connection -- with the [Lutheran] Church. But his connection assumed an attitude of almost superciliousness -- certainly supercessionism -- to the Great Traditions. And it has been easy for those in his "train" -- among whom the Jesus Seminar seem pre-eminent -- to step even farther away from the circle of Faith.)

It will do the Church nothing but good for her people, pastors, and teachers to commit to the study of the Word within the Community of the Word Made Flesh -- not just the contemporary community, but the "great cloud of witnesses" who join us and encourage us in our journey of faith. The Church is not merely one of the "consumers" of scriptural work; she provides the only context within that work might appropriately and meaningfully be conducted.

A couple of concerns arise in this connection, and I am not naive enough to dismiss them.

I am concerned that the Church and the academic establishment are more often than is seemly reflections and pimps of the "worldly culture" that is at odds with the world of the Bible. The result is body of scholarship that appears solid, but is fraught with mischief by simply reinforcing the values and interests of the "world" which is at odds with God's world. The Bible has constantly been made to serve some ideology other than that of the Gospel. And there is nothing salvific in promoting a reading of Scripture which is advertising for one form of privilege (e.g., race, gender, economic status, religious qualification) or for one set of experiences. The dialectic between Church and Bible should serve to criticize such misuse of Scripture, but it has not always been very successful. See the roiling in recent decades raised by "black," "feminist," or "liberation" theologians (to cite merely a few).

Similarly, when the life of the Church assumes a kind of arrogance over against the witness of scriptural reading, there is a misalignment playing itself out. I earlier mentioned that the "magisterium" of the Church is not immune to the correction and criticism from Scripture. These next lines are a little hard for me to write because they cut kind of close to my quick, but theological systems may not determine in advance what the voice of Scripture sounds. The "Fundamentals" are a notorious example of theology's claiming authority over Holy Scripture, but I think it won't surprise many that I can also point to various (especially Scholastic) Lutheran attempts to do the same thing -- though, of course, on different terms and components. (Must, for example, all of scripture be read through the hermeneutic of Law-Gospel, for example?)

Bible and Church have a symbiotic relationship. Without Church, the Bible is not Bible; without the Bible, the Church operates outside the revelation of God. It remains a significant challenge to the Church to live this insight.

This is long enough. But there are some other issues that I'm thinking through. So stay tuned and bring your rapier insight and wit to bear in correcting me.

Friday, May 19, 2006


It has been ages since I've done any ruminating in this space. Work has been hairy, and I've not had any decent time outside work to get any thoughts together.

I want to put out some things about John Zizioulas' book, Being as Communion, which is one of the most exciting books I've read in a long time. But I have to finish slogging through it, first. I also want to get some thoughts down about salvation. But ... .

Tomorrow, I'm off for the annual conference sponsored by the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology: This year we're at Duke University (Div. school) on the topic "Preaching, Teaching, and Living the Bible." It looks to be a loaded conference, but it also means that I won't have time to do any writing -- what with sessions, people to connect and re-connect with, and the like.

I don't know why I feel the need to point out that my silence is the result of more than mere sloth (though that figures in as well).

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Feast of St. Athanasius, 3 May

Today, per the Christian calendar, is the Feast day of Athanasius, one of the most important pastor/teachers in the Church's life. At his subscription e-mail devotional, my e-mail acquaintance Jim Kiefer has published a really fine overview of the life and importance of this bishop. I reproduce it here (I'm hoping this constitutes fair use, because I can't link to my e-mail) with two words:

Subscribe to Daily Bread; it's a lovely way to have Bible, prayer, and reflection presented to you every day.

Read this and reflect on the grace God has shown by raising up faithful witnesses to guide the Church in every truth. (And then go read John Zizioulas' Being is Communion for even more insight into why Athanasius is so important.

The Collect:

Uphold your Church, O God of truth, as you upheld your servant Athanasius, to maintain and proclaim boldly the catholic faith against all opposition, trusting solely in the grace of your eternal Word, who took upon himself our humanity that we might share his divinity; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.


Outside the pages of the New Testament itself, Athanasius is probably the man to whom we chiefly owe the preservation of the Christian faith. He was born around AD 298, and lived in Alexandria, Egypt, the chief center of learning of the Roman Empire.

In 313 the Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, which changed Christianity from a persecuted to an officially favored religion. About six years later, a presbyter (elder, priest) Arius of Alexandria began to teach concerning the Word of God (John 1:1) that "God begat him, and before he was begotten, he did not exist." Athanasius was at that time a newly ordained deacon, secretary to Bishop Alexander of Alexandria, and a member of his household. His reply to Arius was that the begetting, or uttering, of the Word by the Father is an eternal relation between Them, and not a temporal event. Arius was condemned by the bishops of Egypt (with the exceptions of Secundus of Ptolemais and Theonas of Marmorica), and went to Nicomedia, from which he wrote letters to bishops throughout the world, stating his position.

The Emperor Constantine undertook to resolve the dispute by calling a council of bishops from all over the Christian world. This council met in Nicea, just across the straits from what is now Istanbul, in the year 325, and consisted of 317 bishops. Athanasius accompanied his bishop to the council, and became recognized as a chief spokesman for the view that the Son was fully God, co-equal and co-eternal with the Father.

The party of Athanasius was overwhelmingly in the majority. (The western, or Latin, half of the Empire was very sparsely represented, but it was solidly Athanasian, so that if its bishops had attended in force, the vote would have been still more lopsided.) It remained to formulate a creedal statement to express the consensus. The initial effort was to find a formula from Holy Scripture that would express the full deity of the Son, equally with the Father. However, the Arians cheerfully agreed to all such formulations, having interpreted them already to fit their own views. (Those of you who have conversed with members of the Watchtower Society, who consider themselves the spiritual heirs of Arius, will know how this works.)

Finally, the Greek word "homo-ousios" (meaning "of the same substance, or nature, or essence") was introduced, chiefly because it was one word that could not be understood to mean what the Arians meant. Some of the bishops present, although in complete disagreement with Arius, were reluctant to use a term not found in the Scriptures, but eventually saw that the alternative was a creed that both sides would sign, each understanding it in its own way, and that the Church could not afford to leave the question of whether the Son is truly God (the Arians said "a god") undecided. So the result was that the Council adopted a creed which is a shorter version of what we now call the Nicene Creed, declaring the Son to be "of one substance with the Father." At the end, there were only two holdouts, the aforesaid Secundus and Theonas.

(For a dramatic but historically accurate account of the Council of Nicea, see the play, The Emperor Constantine, by Dorothy L Sayers, available in book form.)

No sooner was the council over than its consensus began to fall apart. Constantine had expected that the result would be unity, but found that the Arians would not accept the decision, and that many of the orthodox bishops were prepared to look for a wording a little softer than that of Nicea, something that sounded orthodox, but that the Arians would accept. All sorts of compromise formulas were worked out, with all shades of variation from the formula of Nicea.

In 328, Alexander died, and Athanasius succeeded him as bishop of Alexandria. He refused to participate in these negotiations, suspecting (correctly as it turned out) that once the orthodox party showed a willingness to make reaching an agreement their highest priority, they would end up giving away the store. He defended the full deity of Christ against emperors, magistrates, bishops, and theologians. For this, he was regarded as a trouble-maker by Constantine and his successors, and was banished from Alexandria a total of five times by various emperors. (Hence the expression "Athanasius contra mundum," or, "Athanasius against the world.") Eventually, Christians who believed in the Deity of Christ came to see that once they were prepared to abandon the Nicene formulation, they were on a slippery slope that led to regarding the Logos as simply a high-ranking angel. The more they experimented with other formulations, the clearer it became that only the Nicene formulation would preserve the Christian faith in any meaningful sense, and so they re-affirmed the Nicene Creed at the Council of Constantinople in 381, a final triumph that Athanasius did not live to see.

It was a final triumph as far as councils of bishops were concerned, but the situation was complicated by the fact that after Constantine there were several Arian emperors (not counting the Emperor Julian, who was a pagan, but correctly saw that the most effective way to fight Christianity was to throw all his weight on the side of the Arians). Under one of them Arian missionaries were sent to convert the Goths, who became the backbone of the Roman Army (then composed chiefly of foreign mercenaries) with the result that for many years Arianism was considered the mark of a good Army man. The conversion of Clovis, King of the Franks, in 496, to orthodox Christianity either gave the Athanasian party the military power to crush Arianism or denied the Arian Goths the military supremacy that would have enabled them to crush Athanasian Christianity, depending on your point of view.

Since Alexandria had the best astronomers, it was the duty of the Bishop of Alexandria to write to the other bishops every year and tell them the correct date for Easter. Naturally, his annual letter on this topic contained other material as well. One Easter Letter (or Paschal Letter) of Athanasius is well known for giving a list of the books that ought to be considered part of the canonical Scriptures, with a supplementary list of books suitable for devotional reading.

For the New Testament, he lists the 27 books that are recognized today. (If you will look at your list of New Testament books, you may note that Matthew through 2 Thessalonians were never in dispute, that the next four were subject to relatively little dispute, and that the remaining books had more trouble being accepted. There were also a few books that looked as if they might make the list, but eventually did not, the most conspicuous being the Epistle of Barnabas, the Epistle of Clement, and the Shepherd of Hermas.)

For the Old Testament, his list is like that used by most Protestants, except that he omits Esther, and includes Baruch, with the letter of Jeremiah. His supplementary list is Wisdom, Sirach, Tobias, Judith, and Esther. He does not mention Maccabees.

Two quotations from the writings of Athanasius follow:

We were made "in the likeness of God." But in course of time that image has become obscured, like a face on a very old portrait, dimmed with dust and irt.

When a portrait is spoiled, the only way to renew it is for the subject to come back to the studio and sit for the artist all over again. That is why Christ came--to make it possible for the divine image in man to be recreated. We were made in God's likeness; we are remade in the likeness of his Son.

To bring about this re-creation, Christ still comes to men and lives among them. In a special way he comes to his Church, his "body", to show us what the "image of God" is really like.

What a responsibility the Church has, to be Christ's "body," showing him to those who are unwilling or unable to see him in providence, or in creation! Through the Word of God lived out in the Body of Christ they can come to the Father, and themselves be made again "in the likeness of God."

If... it is by the sign of the cross and by faith in Christ that death is trampled underfoot, it is clear that it is Christ Himself and none other Who is the Archvictor over death and has robbed it, but now, since the sojourn of the Savior and the death and resurrection of His body, it is despised; and obviously it is by the very Christ Who mounted on the cross that it has been destroyed and vanquished finally.

When the sun rises after the night and the whole world is lit up by it, nobody doubts that it is the sun which has thus shed its light everywhere and driven away the dark. Equally clear is it, since this utter scorning and trampling down of death has ensued upon the Savior's manifestation in the body and His death on the cross, that it is He Himself Who brought death to nought and daily raises monuments to His victory in His own disciples. How can you think otherwise, when you see men naturally weak hastening to death, unafraid at the prospect of corruption, fearless of the descent into Hades, even indeed with eager soul provoking it, not shrinking from tortures, but preferring thus to rush on death for Christ's sake, rather than to remain in this present life?

If you see with your own eyes men and women and children, even, thus elcoming death for the sake of Christ's religion, how can you be so utterly silly and incredulous and maimed in your mind as not to realize that Christ, to Whom these all bear witness, Himself gives the victory to each, making death completely powerless for those who hold His faith and bear the sign of the cross? No one in his senses doubts that a snake is dead when he sees it trampled underfoot, especially when he knows how savage it used to be; nor, if he sees boys making fun of a lion, does he doubt that the brute is either dead or completely bereft of strength. These things can be seen with our own eyes, and it is the same with the conquest of death. Doubt no longer, then, when you see death mocked and scorned by those who believe in Christ, that by Christ death was destroyed, and the corruption that goes with it resolved and brought to end.

by James Kiefer: dailybread@giveusthisday.org